Monday, 9 July 2012

What can we do about the problems in Greece this summer?

Have the wheels come off the Greek economy ... or does it just need a push start? (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2012)

Patrick Comerford

I am just back a few days after spending eight days in Crete on a wonderful and very enjoyable holiday.

But already I am being asked questions like these:

● Is it safe to go to Greece on holidays this year?

● Is poverty visible on the streets?

● Can you notice the rise in unemployment?

● Did you see many protests?

● Did you use the banks?

I have visited Greece over 30 times since the mid-1980s; this has been my tenth or twelfth time to stay in Crete, and I have visited or stayed in Rethymnon on most of those occasions.

I can honestly say the welcome I received in the past week in Crete has been as warm as ever, friendships have been deepened, and my own sense of being comfortable there has been enhanced immensely. I never once felt a foreigner, except when friends insisted on paying for meals and then used my nationality to stop the waiters from accepting my payment.

As ever, people were curious and wanted to know why I had come to Greece this year. But when conversations carried on, it was obvious how hurt Greeks are about the present financial and political instability.

Everyone has a story about a suicide they know of, if not in their own family then among their neighbours. Many businesses, shops, hotels and restaurants I have known in the past have closed. Others are struggling with higher tax demands, trying to pay staff and pay rent while seeing custom drop rapidly.

The Pasok offices in Rethymnon ... signs that the party is in freefall in a former stronghold (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2012)

Despite the formation of an apparently stable coalition government, the political future is uncertain. Crete has always been such a strong base for the centre-left Pasok party founded by the late Andreas Papandreou that this was the heartland of his Panhellenic Socialist Movement. But Pasok may be in freefall and the party looks like breaking up. There is considerable speculation that the remnants of the party will form a new grouping, the Democratic Party, before the end of the year.

People I know in Crete who voted consistently for either the centre-right New Democracy or the centre-left Pasok in the past voted not just once but twice this year for the new left Syriza. Other friends have expressed shock that people whose parents or grandparents suffered during the German occupation in 1941-1945 have voted for the neo-Nazi thugs in Golden Dawn.

German tourist numbers are dramatically down in Crete and throughout Greece this summer, and many of the German tourists who have come this year are genuinely sensitive and know what they love about Greece.

Greek pride is still flying high (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2012)

But the Germans are the main targets for blame and for fear in Greece this summer. I overheard German tourists making a ham-fisted effort to joke about paying the bill in a very fine restaurant a few evenings ago. Another waiter said, without any sense of either humour or reserve: “The Germans sent us the Nazis, we gave the world democracy, and now they want us out of Europe.”

Yet, despite all the uncertainty, the statistics show there have been fewer strikes in Greece so far this year that by this time last year, and fewer strikes in Greece than in Italy or in Spain.

The three cities I have visited during the past week or so – Rethymnon, Chania and Iraklion – are very different from Athens and Thessaloniki. They know they depend on tourism and there are fewer strikes or street protests.

Tourism cushions the local people against cuts in public spending, and there is less visible poverty on the streets – although this may be partly because beggars are routinely pushed off the streets in tourist areas, and the first victims of economic cuts in tourist areas were Albanian casual workers who have returned to Albania.

But the effect of tourism on the economy is like an efficient export industry. It brings in foreign earnings without having to pay to ship the produce. It sees foreigners buy local produce without having to export it. And it boosts the country’s balance of payments deficits.

Buy local produce ... it helps the local economy (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2012)

So, should you go to Greece if you are thinking of a holiday there this year?

Yes.

It’s good for the local economy.

And it’s good for local people.

So, do I have any hints or tips?

Go on holiday. Greece is as welcoming and as friendly as it has ever been.

Eating out is good for tourists and is good for local business (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2012)

Eat out, instead of cooking for yourself in your studio or apartment. The food is good, healthy and locally produced. Eating out keeps local farmers, food producers, waiters, restaurateurs, vineyards and accountants in work.

Pay in cash. I totally agree everyone should pay their taxes, and would never advocate tax avoidance or tax evasion. But paying in cash reduces bank charges for everyone, and means wages and local producers will be paid first before German banks and pension funds.

Buy local produce. Buy in local shops and buy locally-produced goods to bring home as presents. Remember you could buy from the big multinational chains at home. If you buy from them in Greece of course you help local employment. But local manufacturers will be squeezed a little more.

Talk to people and listen to them. Greeks quickly empathise when you say you are from Ireland. They understand our problems, but they deserve understanding too. Learn from their story and their experiences. They not only feel hurt, they are hurt, and they expect and need empathy.

Travel on local buses. It’s a good way of meeting local people. The staff in the local bus stations are helpful and they go out of their way to help tourists. And people talk to you on the buses.

Talk politics, talk sport. It is polite in Greece to talk about politics. Everyone has a political opinion, and even if you don’t agree with them, talking about it assures those you meet of their place in Europe. And remember that Greeks are proud of their national team, which did better than Ireland in European football this summer.

You can keep informed and up-to-date. The Athens News looks like a tabloid, but it is a serious political and financial newspaper, published every week in English ... and with remarkably good arts and culture coverage too.

Greeks speak my language when it comes to coffee ... I’ve enjoyed trying to speak their language too (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2012)

Try to learn a little Greek. Saying Good Morning and Thank You in Greek can bring a smile to many people in Greece, and they will encourage you rather than laugh at you.

Travel out, take a local tour. There is more to Greece than the resorts. Local tour operators have short, half-day and one-day tours to local villages, monasteries, archaeological sites and neighbouring islands. You’ll meet the people, and hear their stories in context. And you’ll realise how beautiful the villages and the countryside truly are.

Greek churches are open to visitors and are open for prayer (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2012)

Visit churches and monasteries. Unlike many Irish churches, Greek churches tend to be open all day, and people drop in casually to pray and light a candle. Visiting Greek churches and praying in them lets local people know that we care beyond what we can say. If you go to Church on Sunday, non-Orthodox visitors will not be invited to receive Communion. But wait until the end and prayerfully receive the antidoron, the blessed bread which has not been consecrated.

The National Bank of Greece in Tsouderon Street in Rethymnon ... better access than the Ulster Bank in recent weeks (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2012)

And don’t be afraid to use the banks. There is no need to fear a Greek exit from the Euro at the moment, and the ATM machines are working well. Use cash in shops and restaurants and for any services, and keep your plastic for the ATMS, which are easy to find on almost every street. The National Bank of Greece next door in Tsouderon Street gave me better access to my account and a better service in these recent weeks than I have received in recent weeks from the Ulster Bank, where I have had my accounts since 1970.

Is any of this going to make a difference?

If the only differences that truly matter are the differences we make to each other’s lives, then, in a word, Yes!